MANILA -- Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte embarked on a new firing spree on Tuesday, this time targeting all the senior officials of a state-owned entity for having entered into a deal with a Chinese casino developer.
Without giving details, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said that the lease agreement was "grossly disadvantageous" to the government and that Duterte's decision to fire key officials was "in relation to his campaign against corruption."
To maximize the impact of the president's latest crackdown, the dismissal of nine Nayong Pilipino Foundation board members and management was announced just as its chairwoman, Patricia Ocampo, and officials of Hong Kong-listed Landing International Development were carrying out a groundbreaking ceremony for a $1.5 billion integrated resort project at the Manila Bay entertainment district.
Nayong Pilipino owns the 9.5-hectare plot that Hong Kong-listed Landing has agreed to lease for 25 years for its NayonLanding project, which is planned to include indoor theme parks, hotels, a casino and restaurants.
Ocampo said she would abide by Duterte's order, but denied accusations of graft and corruption. She said that on top of monthly rents, the foundation would receive 10% of net profits from the parks and attractions. "We negotiated what we believe then and now are the most advantageous to the government," she said.
Duterte, who has styled himself as a graft-buster, has fired many people -- from ministers to midlevel bureaucrats -- during his first two years in office, some of whom were given different jobs while many were not charged.
However, the firing of an entire board, which includes a president's relative, Fema Duterte, and the management team of a state entity is unprecedented and comes at a time when Duterte is facing declining popularity.
His latest move also shows that even Chinese investors, who he has tried to woo even at the risk of being perceived as too pro-China, will not be spared in his anti-corruption drive.
According to Roque, Duterte has also called for a review of Landing's lease contract, which the president described as "flawed" and was sealed without a public tender process.
Duterte also strongly opposes gambling -- a stance that has led to some confusion in the country's gambling regulations.
The Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation has granted two casino licenses for Boracay Island, one of the country's most popular tourism destinations, including one for Hong Kong-listed Galaxy Entertainment Group's $500 million project there.
However, Duterte said he would not permit the establishment of casinos on the island, which was closed to the public in April for a six-month cleanup after the president described it as a "cesspool" with inadequate wastewater and sewage provisions.
Despite Duterte's ban on new casinos because of oversupply in the industry, Landing' was granted a license last month.
The Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation, however, said that the casino component in Landing's project would not be opened until 2022 in compliance with a 2017 agreement with existing operators at the Manila Bay entertainment district for a five-year freeze on new casinos.
Bloomberry Resorts, Macau's Melco Resorts and Entertainment and Japan's Universal Entertainment have opened integrated resorts in the Manila Bay entertainment district each worth more than $1 billion, while a joint venture between local tycoon Andrew Tan and Malaysia's Genting Group will see a new casino complex opening in 2020.
Prior to the dismissal of the Nayong Pilipino officers, Landing's Chief Operating Officer Jay Lee had said he did not find the Philippines' gaming policy confusing. He said Duterte and Landing Chairman Yang Zhihui had met during one of the president's overseas trips.
"I would say the policies that were explained to us at the time and now are still the same. There was no uncertainty. The government was very clear in terms of what it wants," Lee said.
Landing has yet to comment on the presidential spokesperson's announcement, including his remarks that its lease contract with Nayong Pilipino was "flawed."